some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35

So ICFA 35 was the first conference I have ever attended at which there was a strong and ongoing discussion of fantasy literature. I have only recently returned to reading fantasy at great length and only even more recently started teaching it and writing about it. I had taught sf for years, and had written a bit about it, but SFRA last year was my first conference on that subject. Point being: I am rather new to being amongst people talking about the issue of genre and these specific genres. Since I am writing about sf, fantasy, and horror in Here at the end of all things, perhaps this moment is long overdue. Better late than never.

In any case, several rather unfinished thoughts from the conference.

The “state of epic fantasy” roundtable, which included Stephen R. Donaldson, Helen Young, AP Canavan, and others, was great, if contentious. Or perhaps great because contentious. In any case, it mainly wound up addressing the question of what fantasy is, at least on a meta-level: why do we ask, and what purpose does it serve that we ask (what does it get us that we ask), what fantasy is, what its boundaries are, etc. There are numerous definitions, some better than others, but none perfect. Such is the nature of defining genre, or defining at all. It seems to me that the terms “genre” and “definition” can be understood as synonyms, or at least both emerging from a certain humanistic necessity for taxonomizing, for drawing boundaries. Latour might say that this is merely the critical project of the moderns at work: after blurring the boundaries between things we then need to purify them back into discrete parts. In any case, a good discussion.

One of the things that emerged in this discussion of genre was, amongst some of the participants anyway (Donaldson included) was the insistence that fantasy is (or “is just as good as”) literature. I, in an attempt to elevate fantasy at the expense of literature (I did not make myself at all clear it seems), asked whether we are reducing fantasy by calling it literature. Donaldson vehemently disagreed (and my inner fan wept, although he and I briefly discussed the matter later and parted on amicable terms). Another panelist insisted, in response to my point that perhaps we need new tools to deal with fantasy as critics, tools not built or developed to deal with a high art concept such as “literature” (itself a highly contentious category or genre), said that the fact that she once wrote a paper on fantasy using conventional theoretical positions suggests, implies, or perhaps even proves that fantasy is literature. In my mind, this response makes no sense (and I apologize to my interlocutor if I am putting words in her mouth–I am working from memory here). Terry Eagleton, in his intro to theory book, shows how we can read any linguistic structure as literature, mine it for complexity, etc. That we can deconstruct, or new historicize, or Lancanian psychoanalyze fantasy does not make it literature.

In any case, my point was not that we can’t do this, but that we should not do this, that reading fantasy according to these tools (which carry in them certain humanistic assumptions that lead us back to preconceived notions about literature, representation, etc), does not allow us to find what is weird, subversive (for lack of a better word at this moment), and therefore powerful in fantasy. Yes, fantasy also carries with it certain humanistic assumptions (about realism, history, plot, subjectivity). However, fantasy also includes something else. Perhaps all literature does, but it seems to me that in many respects fantasy wears these things on its sleeve, and our ability to make these visible and intelligible, and then productive for our thought, requires new tools for analysis (or the development of older tools in new directions). This is in part what Gerry Canavan and I are trying to do with our project on Late Capitalism and Mere Genre.

For my own part, I am starting to think of genre in the manner that Thacker and Galloway think of networks in The Exploit: as inhuman and dehumanizing. These are not bad things here, but things that need to be understood. Humanistic critics, by necessity I believe, tend to humanize genres by discussing particular texts (which become Romantically exemplary) and writers (whose human identities and subjectivities as discrete individuals stand opposed to the inhuman network of genre). There is no avoiding this, even for the most rigorously anti-human, posthuman, or inhuman position. Even the TEI and mapping projects of DH include the humanities are the humanistic perspective (whatever claims to radical newness proponents expound). Nevertheless, genre can be thought of in other terms. We need to define it, we need not ask what it is, into which extant category it fits or next to which extant category it can be arranged. We can ask what it does. That is, we can think of the “gen” in “genre” as something other than that in “genus.” We can, with Foucault (for example) think of it in terms of “genealogy”, which Foucault defines (following Nietzsche a bit, in the seminar on Security, Territory, Population I believe, if I remember correctly), this term as involving local practices and expert knowledge. This then is a knowledge practice that seeks to avoid discipline. Furthermore, it stands against or at least in tension with archaeology. If archaeology is the practice of taking apart (or showing how monuments are not in fact smooth-surfaced coherent structures), then genealogy is the practice of putting things together, of doing things with things as they are put together according to need.

I was, following all of this, very heartened by this panel:

103. (FL/SF/VPAA) The Fantasy Genre in a Broader Perspective
Chair: Stefan Ekman
University of Gothenburg
Fantasy as Genre-Culture: A New Model of Genre
Helen Young
University of Sydney
Teaching Genre Fantasy: An Approach for Discussion
Aidan-Paul Canavan
Independent Scholar
The Rise of Orcs: The Evolution of and Redemption of Orcs and Orcish Societies
Mika Loponen
University of Helsinki

Helen young’s paper showed the usefulness of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory for thinking about genre, a stance that stands opposed to Brian Attebery’s fuzzy sets (even if it does not seek to replace those sets altogether). ANT allows us to think about books and readers (and no doubt institutions, literacies, etc) in a flat ontology that does not privilege the human or particular texts. It also does not seek to bound the discourse, to say where the genre stops and, say, horror begins. Canavan’s paper offered a modular syllabus that does not focus on the great books, but on a useful (or perhaps pragmatic) slicing of the genre. The point is to teach fantasy here, rather than to worry about being precise about WHAT IT IS. Finally, Loponen’s paper (which really needed to reference the Wilson review of Tolkien, “Ooh those awful orcs”, but was otherwise great), showed how we can excavate from fantasy a history of the abject, the subject against which humanity fights and defines itself, namely the orcs. Orcs change over time and develop new characteristics in new media (games, film, tv, writing) and according to shifting social understandings of race, ethnicity, class, etc. The history of orcs as a generic staple (I will not say “convention”) offers us a productive understanding of the genre, something with which we might do and think, rather than a definition of genre itself.

All new academic disciplines require a period of handwringing and  agonizing over their objects. I saw this up close with e-lit, for example. Studying fantasy is not new, but it seems to me that it’s only been in the last couple of years (following on Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy) that the field has moved past definition and towards more specialized, theoretical readings. Saler’s As If and Ekman’s Here be dragons are indicative of this shift. We may therefore be witnessing the end of the question “what is fantasy?” as a scholarly prompt, and this conference seems to have played a major role (at least in this writer’s admittedly imperfect view) in that end.

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6 Responses to “some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35”

  1. So, I’m late to this and wasn’t even at the conference but here goes. For discussions like these, I always go back to Derrida’s argument about genre in “The Law of Genre” where he posits that there is always participation but never belonging. In that sense, fantasy participates in literature but never fully belongs to it. Instead, fantasy is marked by an excess of something which cannot be fully understood in terms of its participation. (Of course, Derrida would insist that literature does not belong to literature either, but that is not the point here).

    It seems to me, that any discussion of fantasy *as fantasy* needs to address this excess or surplus, which is what separates it from literature. I guess that’s what you’re getting at too, but I take Donaldson’s point to be that fantasy participates as much in literature as any other form of writing, and so can also be discussed in relation to literature.

    I assume that Donaldson’s concern is bound up with issues of cultural capital, the desire to be taken seriously. The problem with that argument, as much as I have made similar arguments myself, is that it inevitably comes off as self-doubting. Beckett, Wolfe, Stein, and Joyce would never have cared if they wrote literature or not. Stein, in fact, could easily be seen as wanting to remove her writing from literature all-together. Obviously, this is all a matter of privilege, but the argument still holds, I believe: ‘literary’ writers don’t care if they write literature, while paraliterary writers (to use Samuel Delany’s term) agonize over it endlessly.

    Or maybe not so much more. In all the interviews I’ve read with China Mieville, he always comes across as if he certainly does not want to write literature at all, or that he even cares what people call his writing. For him, the fantastic is a mode which allows different articulations of reality and that is all that matters for him. Perhaps, then, newer fantasy writers care less about the literary as a supposed more culturally valid category, and more about the affordances of fantasy writing.

    It occurs to me that the excess of fantasy (or any other genre) could be thought of in terms of affordances which literature does not have, ways of articulating writing ala Latour’s concept of articulation in “How to Talk About the Body”. Rather than training readers to distinguish scents better, fantasy trains readers to read differently (again, ala Delany), but also to perceive writing and prose affects differently. Fantasy prompts different modes of being than literature, which is exactly why we read fantasy. Which, I guess, is what fantasy does.

    • I think we are in complete agreement. I am fine relating two categories (“fantasy” and “literature”) to one another–any separation is a construction, I think. But there is an implicit value to “literature” that I find not so much wrong as unnecessary or,m better, outdated. Or maybe it SHOULD be outdated. The valorization of literature, in my mind anyway, speaks to a system of value grounded in 19th-century thinking. Moreover, as you suggest at the end, it robs fantasy of the capacity to teach us new things. I think that we could say much the same of any form of writing. Thinking of Shakespeare as literature robs Shakespeare of the potential to be something else, for example.

      In any case, I certainly don’t fault Donaldson or anyone else for this stance, and in the end I don’t think he begrudges me my own. With regard to my own project, however, I want to pursue a way of reading fantasy–and the rest of fantastika for that matter–less reliant on meaning and aesthetic judgements, even if I can’t do away with such things altogether.

      • Yes, I find it hard to articulate the same concerns. Much work had been done in film/media studies in terms of how affect works through sounds and images but relatively little so far for literary studies.

        I’m currently reading Nancy’s *Listening*, where he distinguishes between hearing (meaning, structure, etc) no listening (affect, atmosphere, etc) which I find useful as concept for many cases. So now I’m looking for a good word which will be listening for literature, much like hearing and reading correlate.

        Charles Altieri’s *The Particulars of Rapture* goes a long way but is focused primarily on poetry.

  2. That sounds great. I love the idea of trying to think about a readerly form of listening, which sounds both more and less passive than reading. I am thinking about genre with Foucault and Zielinski, or at least fantasy. That is, I am thinking about quest fantasy as “stated” by Tolkien. All subsequent quest fantasy has to deal with T’s statement, and the subsequent reification of that statement by Brooks, Eddiings, Goodkind, etc, whether positively or negatively. I am especially interested in how certain fantasy deals with the end, how Tolkien can never end LotR adequately and how, for example, Mieville, McKillip, and others try to end their own epics. Since quest fantasy is a literature that often tries to produce a completed humanity or a return to en Edenic past–and in a sense is a literature of “putting things together”–archaeology provides a means of taking things apart. Zielinski’s variontolgy provides a small vocabulary for talking about the riffs critical quest fantasy plays on Tolkien’s eucatastrophe. This discussion takes place outside of what quest fantasy “stands for” or signifies, again to the extent that such a thing is possible, and is more concerned with individual texts in relation to the genre itself. I hope it winds up working.

  3. Mika Loponen Says:

    Ha, found this entry by chance. Many thanks for the Wilson reference: I had somehow missed the review completely, but it quite well hits the spot – and problems – with monsters in LotR. I’m just now finishing an article version of the paper, so this was the perfect time to find the reference, thanks! 🙂

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